by Danielle Charette
Long before Donald Trump, there was the homegrown demagoguery of Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark. All the King’s Men turns seventy this year, but Warren’s best-known novel seems as prescient as ever. As Governor Stark barnstorms his way across the South, Warren exposes the underbelly of American politics, where the rule of law and state budgets become “like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy.” For Warren’s politician, “it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone’s to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind.”
Despite his ten novels, Warren thought of himself primarily as a poet, and you can hear his ear for backwater prosody in Stark’s often-cruel populist rhetoric. In this sense, All the King’s Men serves as a kind of primer for approaching Warren’s earthy realism. The poems we find in volumes like Promises and Tale of Time are full of blackened oaks, birds of prey, unnamed fathers and ticking clocks. The “facts” of rustic America can seem backward or painful, but they can also give substance to poetry. For Warren, the honest poet confronts the world before him, without floating off into what Keats called the “egotistical sublime.” The freewheeling ego is a writerly sin he associated with Emerson’s Over-soul, Hemingway’s chauvinists and Jay Gatsby’s romantic fantasies. All are guilty of a “fluidity of selves” and the dangers that come with delusions of grandeur. More often than not, this shapeshifting has a political component. We see it in the bizarre conceit that the son of a New York real-estate mogul speaks for working-class voters abandoned by the “establishment.” Trump’s sudden affection for the everyman marks a nastier rejoinder to 2008, when soaring vagaries like “hope” and “change” propelled President Obama to the White House. Vacant ideals tend to invite civic confusion at best and political thuggery at worst.
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